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Despite initial frenzy, Superfund proposal comments scarce

Flood of convictions subsides to trickle of concerns
It was a full house in Silverton in February as town and San Juan County officials took comment before voting on seeking Superfund status.

Halfway through a public comment period, a mere five short responses have been posted regarding the proposed Superfund designation for the mining district north of Silverton.

On Aug. 5, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the release of an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater from the Gold King Mine, setting off the ire of communities along the watershed.

In the wake of the blowout, impromptu emergency meetings lighted up with bombardments toward federal agents and impassioned calls for a swift and immediate cleanup of the river.

Social media transformed into a stomping ground for the concerned, the opinionated and the distrustful – an Aug. 6, 2015, Durango Herald report generated 404 comments. And months later, several Facebook groups cropped up, dedicated to the spill.

As alarmed anger transformed into serious conversations on how to address the long-standing problem of metal loading in the Animas watershed, an even more controversial prospect entered: a Superfund designation that had been opposed for nearly two decades by Silverton and San Juan County.

Yet pressure from downstream communities swelled. After much negotiation and discussion with the EPA, Superfund listing was sought by area and state officials. Labeled the Bonita Peak Mining District that includes 48 mining-related sites, a 60-day public comment period began on April 6.

But now, it seems the flood of convictions has subsided to a trickle of concerns.

The few responses include the plain and simple: “Add the Bonita Peak Mining District in San Juan County, CO to the NPL.”

The wary: “Yes it’s scary that this could or already has happened again, but as a tourious (sic), that loves to go ATVING with my family to see all the history of the area, I’m afraid that by cleaning up all these sites, the tourisium (sic) with (sic) domenish (sic) and the towns of Silverton, Oray (sic), and many others will suffer.”

And the puzzling: “Why open County and State to lawsuits when ppl become ill from soil, groundwater and West Fork River sediment stated in Clarksburg WV newspaper.”

A person from Montana cautioned the EPA to characterize the rigidly steep basin for avalanche danger before beginning any projects or installing infrastructure.

And another disagreed with inclusion of the Little Nation mine, located in the Upper Animas, on the listing.

“The Little Nation mine has no water discharge,” wrote Brad Clark, pinning a nearby drainage tunnel as the culprit discharging mine wastewater into a wetland.

Even in 1972, economist Anthony Downs noted the general public’s short-lived appetite for disasters.

“American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long,” he wrote. “Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then – though still largely unresolved – gradually fades from the center of public attention.”

Downs believed there are five cycles to the “issue-attention cycle.”

First, the pre-problem stage, in which an existing issue alarms experts, but hasn’t captured much public attention. Then comes alarmed discovery: an event that thrusts the problem into the spotlight, and jars people to awareness, who in turn call for a quick fix.

In the final three stages general interest wanes. The public realizes there are no silver bullets; solutions are complicated and time intensive. Some feel discouraged, overwhelmed or bored and the issue recedes to the backgrounds of people’s minds.

And by that time, a new problem has taken its place.

Brian Burke, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College, agreed. He said the sight of orange water activated public interest. But now, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

“The problem is much more complicated than the EPA making a mistake and leaking some disgusting poison into our river,” he said. “The problem requires critical thinking, and most people won’t take the time to do that.

“Now that it’s not orange anymore, it’s harder to notice, although pollutants are being dumped daily.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

To comment

To comment on the Bonita Peak Mining District, go to www.regulations.gov and use docket ID number

EPA-HQ-OLEM-2016-0152

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